Robert Altman was fond of claiming that his films were designed to be watched more than once before we could really grasp them. This is largely a way of hinting that his most dismissed or disliked films are better than critics thought. That’s true, but this idea’s unwitting flipside is that when critics loved a film at once, it must be one of his shallower pictures, one whose pleasures are obviously on the surface.
In general, I agree that his films of lukewarm reception tend to be more interesting, such as Popeye (1980), Pret-a-Porter (1994), Kansas City (1996), and Dr. T & the Women (2000), and I don’t think that’s just my perversity. From M*A*S*H (1970) to later “comeback” titles like The Player (1992) and Gosford Park (2001), his hits are his most superficially crowd-pleasing items, while the critic-pleasing Short Cuts (1993) is among his worst.
Short Cuts‘ plangent critical huzzahs derive from its potshots at rich Angelenos, a posture critics approve of because they recognize the type and enjoy being punished for their own aspirations. Lost in its lulling Altman-esque hypnosis is that the spaghetti strands of Raymond Carver‘s stories not only dilute their power but convey exactly the opposite of Carver’s points. If films are going to be unfaithful to their sources, I’d prefer they be in more stimulating directions.
Here’s where I admit the great exception. Nashville (1975) was, on the whole, a critically adored film, possibly his most celebrated as an instant masterpiece. I find the consensus, in this case, to be right, so right, so very unimpeachable, oh hell yes, like a stopped clock must be right twice a day. We witness this ineluctable truth in a new Blu-ray in the Paramount Presents line.
In a once-modern touch that now seems nostalgic (to those of us who remember), the film opens with a blaring announcement resembling those commercials for record albums by K-Tel consumer products that were all over American television at the time. We’re pitched the name of the film, frequently repeated like a brand name, amid the list of actors.
After this high-energy burst of trumpery, Nashville immediately recedes into the slow, low-key, mellow pace it will follow for nearly three hours. The credits are now presented more formally on screen while the soundtrack is dominated by the droning megaphone of a van promoting a fringe presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker. Like a political equivalent of an ice-cream truck, the van and its speeches collate politics and pitchman in an audio-visual motif that units the film as much as any other element.
This device forecasts Altman’s 1998 HBO series Tanner ’88, in which the fake presidential candidate mixes with true if equally unreal specimens. It’s decades ahead of Sasha Baron Cohen‘s Borat hoax. Many viewers at the time of Nashville‘s release may have had the impression that Walker was a real person. In fact, this unseen character is an invention voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips, whose The Bitterweed Path (1950) is a pioneering homosexual novel.
In the middle of a lengthy scene at a public shindig, where Altman alumnus Julie Christie makes a cameo as herself, Lady Pearl bursts into drunken lugubrious tears at the memory of JFK’s assassination. Coming out of left field, this moment is among the most emotionally “real” in the film, so much that it almost feels like it’s breaking through the screen, like a lance through a painted backdrop. The event has clearly lost none of its defining hurt for her, and its cultural hangover will turn out to be Nashville‘s major theme.
So the political undercurrent is introduced from the start and will structure the film. It’s pointless here to trace the meanderings of the two dozen primary characters over the film’s five-day setting but one of the most surprisingly pertinent turns out to be Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley).
“This isn’t Dallas!” will be exclaimed by Grand Ole Opry star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) at the climax. No, it isn’t, but it is Nashville, an iconically American town, an iconically Southern town, and a town with as specific a cultural heritage as Memphis or New Orleans. Some in Nashville and the country music industry were miffed by this film, perceiving that it made fun of them. This idea of mockery seems underlined by the fact that Altman had his cast, none of whom were country musicians, write and perform their own songs, which are on the pitch-imperfect border between parody and reality.
That border is important. Yes, to some degree this satire is making fun of Nashville, and through it all of America, and to some degree, it isn’t. Joan Tewkesbury’s infinitely nuanced and complex script isn’t an insider’s view. The film takes a distanced sideways look, albeit an immersive one, at an entertainment industry, its relation to politics, and its expressions of humanity and frailty, all as a microcosm of American reality.
These people have hopes and ambitions as they carry on with their lives, and to some extent, they are lost, unconscious of where they are and where they go. We don’t like to think of ourselves so. It makes us uncomfortable to be told we’re part of a community that’s not as in control of its destiny, not to mention its daily reality, as we’d wish according to American ideologies of self-sufficiency and individualism and democracy and blah blah blah. If we think somebody’s making fun of us, playing a joke on us, maybe God or the establishment, or the director, we resent it.
Thus I declare that Nashville isn’t merely a political and a musical film but a spiritual and existential one. Take note of how often the characters speak of God. Depending on where you sit, you may assume or project an intellectual’s godless mockery on such details, but nothing stops you from assuming or projecting compassion within the context of satire. The most blistering satirists, such as Jonathan Swift, are those who bleed as deeply as their targets.
The film’s characters provide their own answer in the lyrics of the final song, written by Keith Carradine and performed by Barbara Harris, who almost literally steals the stunning finalé. The refrain goes “You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me”.
The degree to which this anthem is ironic as well as defiant, and possibly even wise as well as insular, depends on what you bring to this film of endless funhouse contradictions. Nashville manages to be sour and sympathetic, accurate and exaggerated, messy and beady-eyed across a sprawling canvas reminiscent of Bosch or Breugel, albeit of a different tonal palette.
The film is endlessly rich in itself and also in comparison with the rest of Altman’s output. To pick one tiny detail: an incidental highway crash foreshadows a crucial crash in A Wedding (1978). Someone needs to write a book, unless they already have, on the symbolic function of the car crash in American cinema.
Obviously, Nashville partakes of Altman’s many films structured around musical performances, too numerous to list here. It also fits into his sub-constellation of Southern movies, such Brewster McCloud (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974, also written by Tewkesbury), Health (1980, and where’s that on disc?), Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), The Gingerbread Man (1998), Cookie’s Fortune (1999) and Dr. T & the Women (2000). Has another major modern director made so many films?
No wonder generations of viewers have found so much in Nashville. Among other revelations, we find that “the show must go on” is a political statement, that the show distracts us from reality, and that the show is reality. I suggest a double-feature with another film of the same length, Henry King‘s Wilson (1944), the first film to present American politics as a semi-musical spectacle of distraction.
Also in the staggering cast of Nashville, in alphabetical order: David Arkin, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Timothy Brown (as a black singer reminiscent of Charlie Pride), Keith Carradine (whose “I’m Easy” won an Oscar for Best Song), Geraldine Chaplin, Robert DoQui, Shelley Duvall, Allen Garfield, Scott Glenn (as a Vietnam veteran representing the war’s still-warm legacy), Jeff Goldblum, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Allen F. Nicholls, David Peel, Cristina Raines, Bert Remsen, Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles and Keenan Wynn.
Tewkesbury, who has worked primarily in stage and TV, directed one feature, and it’s worth our attention: Old Boyfriends (1979) has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Criterion previously released Nashville and I’m holding on to that one, but I’m glad to have this Paramount edition too. Remastered from a 4K scan, the disc retains Altman’s older commentary and throws in a making-of.